The ACM Machine

Assistant City Managers Outlive Rumors of Their Demise

Immediately following the election of the new "green" council, City Hall buzzed with rumors of imminent resignations and dismissals of upper-level staff members. Even councilmembers were willing to confirm that heads were ready to roll, especially among the four Assistant City Managers (ACMs) who each oversee several related city departments. Three months later, blood-thirsty critics of city staff have yet to witness anything more than a few flesh wounds, but by all accounts, city government is running more smoothly than in recent history. Instead of launching a rash of firings, City Manager Jesus Garza decided to shuffle ACM responsibilities in hopes that new challenges would bring fresh perspectives from both sides of the tug-of-war between council and staff. In the meantime, the infamous unanimity of the new council has launched a new era of communication not only between councilmembers, but between council and department heads. "This city council is my first experience with some consistent policy direction for more than a week and a half. That's good for the community, whether you agree with the city council or not," ACM Jim Smith observes.

Ideally, the city council surfs the waves of community politics, forming laws in the best interests of Austin's citizens. Then, ACMs listen to council's intent and create bureaucratic systems to support council directives. In the real world, though, because council is forced to rely on city staff for information gathering, problem-solving, and policy implementation -- in other words, just about everything -- there are constant power struggles between the two groups. Once a council directive makes it through the city's system and back to the dais for approval, it has often undergone a metamorphosis at the hands of ACMs who have provided direction to their respective departments in the same way that council had provided direction to the ACMs. "Each side doesn't mean to be so subjective," explains Councilmember Jackie Goodman's aide, Susan Sheffield, adding that council aides often play middlemen for warring factions at City Hall.

While councilmembers represent the public, staff members feel they represent expertise on the issues. "A lot of times staff members may be eating, living, and breathing a subject," says City Manager Jesus Garza. "It's a natural tension," he explains, "but at a certain point you just have to say `here's my line, trust me.'" Unfortunately, trust can be hard to come by at City Hall. The acrimonious debate over Garza's selection of a police chief, for example, illustrates how administrative decisions can be inextricably linked to politics.

Smith elaborates on the central juxtaposition of his job. "A lot of what an ACM does is issue-oriented as opposed to management, but I would never use the word political. We're using our judgment so that the city council doesn't have to study a thousand options." Toby Futrell, who moved up the staff ranks to her recent appointment as an ACM, explains the nature of the paradox this way: "We are in a political arena and we are not political people."

Not surprisingly, as career paths for city managers go, Austin turns out to be one of the most politically charged destinations around, but also one of the most attractive. "Many people don't believe this, but Austin has a good reputation for being a well-run city with good citizen participation. You find out very quickly that there is no one answer in terms of making a decision in Austin, and you have to make sure you touch base with all the issues and groups," says ACM Marcia Conner. "Many people say if you can work in Austin, you can work anywhere."

Bulldog Conner

In the recent weeks since the City Hall duty shuffle, Conner, 39, has found herself immersed in debates over privatizing city health clinics, closing the Riverside branch library, and selecting the police chief. Not that Conner is any stranger to political hot water. Before the duty changeover, when the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development (NHCD) department fell under her purview, she often found herself at the center of councilmember Eric Mitchell's always contentious push for Eastside revitalization. Where controversy goes, it just seems Conner follows.

Normally, citizen rancor stays focused on the controversial issues, but occasionally it seeps out, attaching to Conner herself. By her own admission a woman of fierce resolve and focus, she is often accused of pushing issues through the process by force, and even by deceit. Conner takes the criticism in stride. "There's a certain point when you try to get an issue through, and a certain point where you back off of it," she says. "Sometimes [the criticism] just comes with the territory."

During Mitchell's tenure, Conner was often accused of being his arm on staff, especially where NHCD programs like the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) were concerned. From Conner's perspective though, she was in a no-win situation. "Mr. Mitchell was very involved in his projects and they happened to be projects in Housing. I kind of laugh. As many times as I've heard that [accusation], I've also heard the opposite," she says.

Hilbert Maldonado of the Community Development Commission, which reviews NHCD decisions, has accused Conner of deliberately thwarting citizen input in favor of backing her own or Mitchell's directives. Conner characteristically maintains a professional distance from such personal attacks by arming herself with a wealth of data to support unpopular positions. When her methods of garnering council go-ahead for the ARA's Slum and Blight study were questioned, Conner was ready to back herself up with a mandate for the study from federal funding sources. When the more recent outsourcing of clinic laboratories was questioned, Conner could cite cost savings off the top of her head.

Conner can be a tough woman to beat, and that is not surprising considering the experience she brings to the job. Although she started out with a graduate degree in Urban Planning, she immediately moved into city government. After getting her start in the Dade County, Florida budget office, she moved to the small town of Opa Locka, Florida, where she was ACM for two years and city manager for two and a half. She then spent five years as the city budget director in Arlington, Virginia before coming to Austin as Garza's first ACM appointee in 1994. Her expertise is in federal Community Development Block Grants, which made her the natural choice to oversee NHCD. However, she is not disappointed with the change in her responsibilities. "The challenge I have now is much greater," she says. For a woman like Conner, bigger and better challenges is what it's all about.

Development Devil

In the era of the Salamander Seven, could there be an easier target than ACM Jim Smith? Smith's reputation as an anti-environmentalist is so ingrained at City Hall he even jokingly casts himself as the "development devil." If Smith is so evil, and his political intentions so mistrusted, one wonders what he is still doing on staff. It does not take long to find out.

After earning his master's degree in public administration, Smith, 48, began his career in public service with the New York City Fire Department. During the council retreat, Smith was embarrassed when Sheffield, Goodman's aide, recounted the story of Smith's courageous rescue of several families from a burning apartment complex. His reticence, even in a proud moment, is characteristic. "I'm not exactly a high-profile person," he admits. "That's the way it should be."

After gaining administrative experience as chief of fire prevention for the city of Dayton, Ohio, Smith's move to Austin in 1984 meant his low-profile days were over. Recruited by Austin to merge the Building and Public Works departments, Smith found the career niche which ultimately became his political rut. Then-City Manager Camille Barnett eventually appointed Smith as head of the Planning Department and, in 1994, Garza promoted him to ACM over Planning, Public Works, and Development Review and Inspection. It was here where Smith gained his pro-development reputation.

Critics say that Smith used his position to encourage rampant sprawl and to thwart environmental causes. "He would actually say, `The applicant is our customer,'" reports one disgusted city board member. The "customers" were, of course, developers applying for building permits.

"It's very easy to get labeled," rebuts Smith. "It's a convenient way of discussing the issues. I probably have said that the applicant is the customer, but the rules are not our judgment. Our role is not to interpret those rules to one constituency or another, it is to work as efficiently and courteously as possible," he says.

Environmental critics might be surprised to find out, however, that Austin's recent court victory over the annexation of the Circle C subdivision and the city's new focus on county-wide tax equity -- both efforts to strengthen the core city and discourage urban sprawl -- are efforts in which Smith played a prominent role. His expertise on the Texas Legislature (he's Garza's point man at the Lege) will also come in handy when it comes time to defend another enviro push -- the ordinance replacing Senate Bill 1704.

Smith will have more opportunities to play good guy these days, since all his former departments have been handed over to new ACM Toby Futrell in what many see as an obvious move by Garza to appease the new council. Smith is now being asked to focus his development expertise on "Downtown and Regional Partnerships," the very antithesis of urban sprawl. Considering all the changes happening to Austin's planning methods in the wake of 1704's repeal, how does Smith feel being out of the loop? "Thanking God," he says.

New Blood

Toby Futrell may be the newest ACM on the block, but she is certainly no stranger around city hall. "I'm a typical Austinite," Futrell jokes about her languid progress through the ranks of Austin's government. But she does not have the luxury of languor any longer. Less than two months after her ACM appointment, Futrell, 42, found herself overseeing city planning when the news of SB 1704's repeal hit the streets. "I felt like a deer caught in the headlights," she admits. By all accounts, however, Futrell rose to the occasion. "She literally pulled the staff together on that one," says Garza. "She's willing to look at things a lot differently."

Sometime in the late Seventies, after dropping out of college as a drama major, Futrell's state job with Health and Human Services became a city position. She remained with the city, switching into auditing before returning to college to complete her bachelor's degree in business. After working as an administrative assistant for former ACM Byron Marshall, she moved up to work as city manager Camille Barnett's assistant mere months before Barnett's tumultuous resignation. "That was a very memorable period of time," says Futrell. "I learned the first lesson of city management -- jobs are tenuous," she says, observing that the average city manager spends three years at the job, and that half end up being fired.

Fortunately for Futrell, Barnett's demise only opened Futrell up for further promotion. As Chief of Staff under Garza, Futrell says she had "about eight seconds for everything," and that she prefers the focus that her new ACM position affords. Despite the fact that her appointment is a direct reassignment of Smith's former duties, Futrell argues that his expertise is a tough act to follow. "You'd be hard-pressed to beat the history and level of detail Jim has in this area," she says, arguing that the departments are "locked together at the hip," and so naturally have been reassigned as a unit.

Although Futrell has now weathered the trial by fire which 1704's repeal delivered, it is still too soon to tell whether she will be able to head up city planning without making enemies of environmentalists. Expectations among former opponents of Smith are running high, and Futrell seems to understand that the city is ready for a new direction. "In a bureaucracy, it's easy to get rigid," she explains. "The winds of policy change, and staff's boat is slow to turn. One of the things I've tried to do is not to do things the way they had been done in the past."

Failed to Mention

The relentless grind of the rumor mill following the new council's election was most generously fueled by rumors of the demise of long-time ACM Joe Lessard. "Lessard is out by October 1," was the furtively whispered canon, especially following his conspicuous absence from the city council retreat in June. Although it seems that rumors of imminent resignation were greatly exaggerated, there is no doubt that Lessard's influence at city hall has diminished. In rattling off opinions of his ACMs, Garza mentioned Conner, Smith, Futrell, even Betty Dunkerley, the director of financial services, but then changed the subject before interrupting his own train of thought. "Oh yes, and there is the one I failed to mention," he said, referring to Lessard.

Though his name is still on the door that leads into the ACM offices, the organizational chart neglected to award Lessard the title. Lessard, 43, who holds a master's degree in Public Administration, is a product of former City Manager Barnett; he served as her assistant when she was an ACM in Dallas. Five years later, in 1989, Barnett recruited him out of the private sector as her first ACM appointment in Austin. Though his title is now ambiguous, his job is more focused than ever. After overseeing the Aviation Department for eight years -- in addition to other departments including Police, Fire, and EMS -- Lessard has been moved out of City Hall to Robert Mueller Airport so that he can closely direct the changeover from Mueller to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA).

"There is nothing more important in May of 1999 than to be cutting a ribbon out there," says Garza. Although he admits that Lessard is no longer part of the "immediate team," Garza is adamant that Lessard's reassignment is of critical importance to the city. Still, the shambles of Lessard's days overseeing the Austin Police Department cannot be ignored.

An audit of the Police Department performed last year concluded that police management, from the top down, was responsible for poorly managed finances and stalled internal communication. The resignation of Police Chief Elizabeth Watson in the face of a no-confidence vote from officers the year before was the obvious reflection of these difficulties, but Lessard's reassignment could also be seen as audit fallout. Conner "seems to be an easier person to disagree with," Austin Police Association President Mike Lummus cautiously comments. Lessard downplays the difficulties as part of a nationwide trend toward prevention-based policing. "Every police department in the country is grappling with how to make that transition," he says.

Lessard does have an interesting record of successes, however. "He is one of the most creative minds I think I have ever worked with," says Futrell, citing Lessard's best-known brainchild, the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, as well as his program dedicating church drainage fees to programs for the homeless. "I find it a challenge to come up with solutions that are sort of out of the box," he says.

In fact, Lessard says that not only would his exit from Austin prior to the completion of the new airport demand "a pretty phenomenal opportunity," but that he is in for the long haul on the track to city manager, adding: "I don't think I would pass up an opportunity to look at a city elsewhere, but the city of Austin is as good as it gets."

Saint Betty

Finding number-scrawled pads on the desk of the city's budget planner is not out of the ordinary, but the basic addition problem sitting in front of Betty Dunkerley is a special one. "This is my latest attempt to save the Austin Music Network," she explains. "I'm just trying to squeeze everything I can." The network, which falls under Dunkerley's jurisdiction, is threatened with being cut from the city's 1997-1998 budget, but Dunkerley and others have vowed to save it. Her personal dedication to the politically fragile network is only one example of what makes Dunkerley popular with both sides of the City Hall tug-of-war. "Saint Betty is what we ought to call her," Garza jokes.

As the city's money manager, Dunkerley's should be a tenuous and highly charged role, but she consistently maintains a low profile. Most ACMs are on a career-track to becoming city managers, but for Dunkerley, the fact that her title -- Director of Financial and Administrative Services -- is not ACM says it all. "It tells people that I'm not interested in being an ACM, and I'm not interested in being a city manager. I like what I do," she says with a smile.

Unlike many of her younger colleagues on staff, Dunkerley, 62, was never on the fast track to public service. After earning a bachelor's degree in English and doing a brief stint teaching school, she took a hiatus to give birth to four children in five years. After 20 years of child-rearing, Dunkerley, at the age of 40, decided to go back to school. On a whim she signed up for an accounting course, and a year later had earned her CPA. "I'm an English major. That's the key to all of it," she laughs. "This was not an area of interest to me early on, so I truly have enjoyed it."

Although budget season is always studded with well-publicized political issues -- like this year's Austin Music Network fight -- instead of naming political victories as her proudest moments, Dunkerley cites less glamorous administrative changes. According to Dunkerley, budget time used to find office staff working around the clock at city hall. "I didn't want to have people sleeping on the floor up here every day for a month. Now if we do it once or twice, that's okay," she says. She also points to improved utility customer service, making it possible to pay utility bills at grocery stores and cutting on-hold telephone time from 45 minutes to five.

Perhaps because her political tastes are simpler than most city government hawks, Dunkerley has stayed above the fray at city hall for seven years. Even after City Manager Camille Barnett, who hired Dunkerley in 1990, resigned amid financial controversy, Dunkerley was reappointed to her post by Garza. She suggests that the secret of her success lies in knowing where to draw the line between making professional recommendations to council and steering policy decisions. "I hope I don't ever cross those political boundaries," she says. "I just try to be helpful. Perhaps that's the difference. It's just a difference in attitude."

A large (50K) organizational chart of city management is also available.

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